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Neurodiversity: A Guide for Employers
Why is it important?
At least 20% of the adult population have a diagnosed neurological condition such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and/or dyspraxia. Therefore, it is essential that employers are aware of how to support such employees in order to create a diverse, productive workforce which values everyone’s contribution.
What is it?
The term neurodiversity encompasses the idea that everybody’s brain is different and as a result we all interact with and experience the world around us differently. Until as late as the 1990’s some of these differences were viewed as “abnormal” especially in relation to conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and dyspraxia. Since then, it has been recognised that these differences are simply natural variations and although some individuals may require adjustments in the workplace, many of them can still provide a variety of skills to benefit organisations.
How can it benefit the workplace?
Attributes that those with neurodivergent conditions can bring to the workplace include:
- Reliability, conscientiousness and persistence
- High levels of concentration
- Detailed factual knowledge and an excellent memory
- Attention to detail and the ability to identify errors
- Strong technical abilities in their specialist areas
- Creativity, especially in visual or spatial or process activities
- High levels of intellect
- The ability to look at the bigger picture and think laterally
As neurodivergence is fairly common, most workplaces will already be neurodiverse without possibly knowing. It is therefore important that employers recognise this and put in place strategies to benefit all employees making everyone feel valued and supported whilst also benefiting the company by retaining staff, improving attendance and performance and promoting mental health.
Why may adjustments be required?
Due to the difficulties that individuals with neurodiverse conditions can experience in their daily life they can in some cases be classified as disabled. Therefore, employers may be required to implement reasonable, workplace adjustments under the Equality Act 2010.
Neurodiversity and the Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act 2010 provides a legal framework to effectively tackle disadvantage and discrimination. It is discrimination to treat a disabled person unfavourably because of something connected with their disability. This type of discrimination is unlawful where the employer knows, or could reasonably be expected to know, that the person has a disability.
A person is disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on their ability to do normal daily activities.
‘Substantial’ is more than minor or trivial, e.g. it takes much longer than it usually would to complete a daily task. ‘Long-term’ means it has lasted 12 months or more or is likely to.
If a neurodiverse person’s difficulties are severe enough to cause them significant difficulties with everyday activities, then they are likely to be covered by the Equality Act 2010.
The Equality Act requires employers to make reasonable adjustments to make sure disabled workers aren’t seriously disadvantaged when doing their jobs. For more information about the Equality Act, reasonable workplace adjustments and factors to consider relating to what may be ‘reasonable ‘for an employer to provide please see the link below.
Reasonable adjustments will vary from case to case but may be very simple such as providing extra IT software or a quiet space to work in.
The social model of disability says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference (scope.org.uk). This is why for example, many buildings are wheelchair accessible and hearing loops are available for the hearing impaired. In relation to neurodiversity those barriers are mainly caused by people’s attitudes towards these differences and by the societal norms that have been created in most areas of life including the workplace.
The social model helps us recognise barriers that make life harder for disabled people. Removing these barriers creates equality and offers disabled people more independence, choice and control.
Neurodiversity and mental health
Many of those with neurodivergent conditions have learned to ‘mask’ their difficulties to try and make themselves more ‘neurotypical’ to fit with societal norms and workplace expectations. This pressure to conform can often lead to issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. Open communication and more understanding from employers and colleagues is therefore extremely valuable when attempting to understand individual’s needs.
Examples of neurodivergent conditions
Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (which includes Asperger’s syndrome) is a lifelong developmental disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. More than one in 100 people are on the autism spectrum and there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK. (autism.org.uk 2022)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that is defined through analysis of behaviour. People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity–impulsivity that interferes with day-to-day functioning and/or development. It has a childhood incidence rate of 5% and an adult incidence rate of 3-4%. (adhd.org.uk)
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling. Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. (bdadyslexia.org.uk)
Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia, is a common disorder affecting fine and/or gross motor coordination in children and adults. It presents differently in each person and can include difficulties with movements, organisation and planning, speech and language, Dyspraxia/DCD affects around 10% of the population, 2 – 4 % significantly. (dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk)
Dyscalculia is a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers which can lead to a diverse range of difficulties with mathematics. It will be unexpected in relation to age, level of education and experience and occurs across all ages and abilities. (bdadyslexia.org.uk)
Dysgraphia is a condition that affects the ability to recognise and decipher written words, and the relationship between letter forms and the sounds they make. As a result, writing, spelling and forming words is challenging for anyone with Dysgraphia. People with Dysgraphia will likely struggle to write neatly, and their letters, numbers, words and punctuation will often appear jumbled. Dysgraphia itself does not affect intelligence but can often present in people with learning disabilities. (hft.org.uk)
Tic disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome are a condition that causes a person to make involuntary sounds and movements called tics. Swearing is rare and only affects about 1 in 10 people with Tourette’s syndrome. Symptoms usually begin in childhood and although there is no cure they can be managed and sometimes disappear altogether. Symptoms can be worse due to stress, anxiety and tiredness. (nhs.uk)
It is important to see each person with a neurodivergent condition as an individual and not to make assumptions about them based on their condition. For example, not everyone with autism will be good at maths and not everyone with ADHD will have symptoms of hyperactivity.
How to best support employees including making reasonable adjustments
Every neurodiverse individual will require different reasonable adjustments depending on their circumstances and needs. Therefore, it is essential that they are involved directly in establishing those adjustments and reviewing them.
Reasonable adjustments may include things like:
- Looking at supportive technology and equipment for example, speech to text software, screen overlays, ergonomic keyboards and daily planners.
- Providing a sit stand desk or balance chair if someone needs to move around a lot. This may help reduce distractions to other employees.
- Changes to the physical environment or flexibility to work from home occasionally or start earlier if a very noisy or busy work environment impacts on concentration. Alternative lighting may also be required or antiglare screens.
- Adapted communication methods for example those with autism may have difficulty understanding ambiguous or figurative language and require communication and instructions to be as clear and concise as possible. Those with ADHD may struggle taking in a lot of information at once so smaller chunks of information may work better.
- Following up verbal conversations/instructions in writing or with diagrams to provide clarity. Also checking understanding to reduce the risk of miscommunication.
- Where appropriate the appointment of a workplace ‘buddy’ may be helpful to assist with maintaining social etiquette in the work environment and to explain/resolve possible miscommunications.
- Communicating any changes to the business or their job role in a timely manner and as clearly and concisely as possible in a written format to help reduce any stress and anxiety that this may cause.
- Allowing extra time for tasks that may be difficult including those involving reading, writing and arithmetic.
- Regular review meetings to encourage safe, open communication.
Access to work
Access to work is a publicly funded employment support programme which aims to help those with disabilities find work and stay in work. It can provide assessments in the workplace to assess what reasonable adjustments may be required and practical and financial support through an access to work grant. For example, if special computer equipment is required or travel costs if an employee cannot use public transport. Access to work can also provide practical support for employees via support workers and job coaches.
The following links may be helpful to employers when looking at reasonable adjustments and general advice around neurodiverse conditions.